Blueprint for Production

No doubt your mind swirls with little pictures, pictures that represent your ideas.

Capture these “idea pictures” on videotape, and everybody can enjoy them.

But between your first idea-picture and your final cut there’s a lot to do-and a lot of it involves people other than yourself.

You must communicate your great ideas to these people, be they clients or camera operators, clearly enough so they see the same pictures you do.

How can you be so sure you’re all on the same wavelength?

By getting those idea pictures out of your head and down on paper where everyone can see them.

And that is where the storyboard comes in.

Picture This Video

A storyboard is a graphic representation of your video.

Like the comics you see in the newspaper, it consists of a series of pictures illustrating the scenes of your video.

String these scenes all together, and these pictures tell your video’s story.

The graphics need not be fancy- hand-drawn stick figures will do. Which is not to discount fancy graphics-from the most elaborately airbrushed fine art to computer-generated images.

Fancy or not, these graphics usually wind up pasted to a large board, the scenes pictured in little boxes corresponding to video’s three by four format. Captions underneath each picture describe the audio story…what the characters say, what kind of music plays, what sorts of sound effects bang away in the background.

Obviously, detailed storyboards are not necessary on every video. Rough storyboards suffice for documentaries-there’s simply no way to know exactly what scenes you’ll capture beforehand. But on dramatic productions involving different actors and locations, a detailed storyboard can help you anticipate and avoid problems on the shoot. Using storyboards before producing commercials and computer animations can mean the difference between money in the bank and lots of costly reshooting.

Say you’re shooting a short dramatic piece involving space aliens in the old West. You write the script, and then break the script into scenes, the scenes into shots. You prepare a production schedule. You think you’re ready.

You’re not. Go ahead and take that extra step. Prepare a storyboard.

You don’t have to be Michelangelo to draw these pictures. Stick figures and vague shapes will serve the purpose nicely (as long as you can tell what that blob on this side of the shot is, you’re okay).

You draw the first shot. The aliens’ space ship descends into Monument Valley. In the next shot, they get out of the ship. Cut to a stagecoach moving swiftly, clouds of dust trailing behind it. James, the driver, whoops wildly and cracks his long whip at the team of sweating horses.

The aliens watch from behind a butte. At the last moment, they jump from their hiding place and try to hold up the stage. Gabby, riding shotgun, lets them have it with both barrels. The aliens go down, splattering green slime. The doctor jumps from the stage and quickly examines one of the creatures. The driver watches expectantly. The doctor looks up at the driver and says hoarsely, “He’s dead, Jim.”
You look over your art work. It’s rough, but nonetheless it serves the purpose: you get your idea across.

But as you look closer, a nagging doubt creeps into your mind. Then it comes to you. You planned to use upside-down pie plates for the spaceship. This is fine for the long shot, but you also have a shot of the aliens getting out of the ship. The pie plate may not look so good in that one. You’ll need to re-think it.

Also, using the pictures as a guide, you see you’re still short a few props- western outfits, a doctor’s bag, alien make-up, some horses and oh yeah, a stagecoach. It’s better to learn about these problems in the planning stages of your production, rather than when you’re out in the field with your technicians and actors.

Okay, so you go out and get all these props, costumes and locations you know you need, thanks to your storyboard. You can now gather together cast and crew to discuss the details of the upcoming shoot.

Using the storyboard, you can show the camera operator how to get close to the ground for the shot where the stagecoach rolls over him. For another shot, he’ll need to ride one of the stagecoach horses as he focuses back at the driver. And he’ll also need some sort of harness for the overhead shot that simulates the spaceship crash landing. Of course, after reviewing this with him, you may also need a new camera operator.

You can show the actors how you’ll cut the different scenes together, so they can get a better understanding of their characters and the motivations for their actions.

“So I shoot my gun at the aliens and not the doctor,” the actor playing Gabby says after seeing the storyboard, a point that obviously needed clearing up. However, he still has a question about motivation.

From your perspective as the director of the shoot, the storyboard helps you make sure the shots you’ve planned will work well together. You have a shot of Jim followed by a similar shot of Gabby. From the storyboard you realize that this might look like a jump cut when you put the two together. You grab a pencil and quickly draw a point of view shot from Jim’s perspective of the view from behind the horses.

Now when you cut to Gabby, you not only avoid the jump cut, you make a statement about the grumpy sidekick through the use of juxtaposition.

Tips from the Pros

The professionals have always used storyboards. Alfred Hitchcock planned out his films with storyboards to such degree that he found the actual shooting anticlimactic. He claimed he’d made all the artistic decisions long before the cameras rolled.

Steven Spielberg turns every single shot of his movies into graphics, which he then tacks to the walls of his office.

He moves all of them around as he pleases to see how they will fit together.

These directors don’t leave much to chance, a good reason to use storyboards. But many professionals use storyboards for another good reason-money.

“Whenever we shoot live productions here,” says Jane Carter, Studio Art Representative of Napoleon Video- graphics, a video and art studio in New York City, “we have our artist storyboard out certain scenes to show the client different ways to shoot the video-including a variety of shot angles and editing cuts. It’s easier to make a shooting board to show a client what the director has in mind. It saves a lot of time and lets everyone know they are thinking the same way.”

Napoleon Videographics specializes in producing highly polished work in very short turn-around times. The trick is to understand exactly what the customer wants up front.

“Most of the time we deal with advertising agencies,” Carter said, “they’re our biggest clients. They come in with their ideas and we go over those ideas with them. Once we know what theywant, we transfer these instructions to the artist drawing the storyboard.

Clients usually have an idea of how they want the board to look. They might want it drawn with a cartoon style or they might want it to be realistic. If the client wants a scene to look like it was shot with a special lens, such as wide angle, the artist can do that, too. And we can do quick pencil sketches to make sure that the camera angles are correct or that the people shown on the storyboard are the right ages.”

For these advertising agency clients, the storyboard is more than a production planner, it’s an all-important selling tool.

“The agencies use the storyboards to sell their commercials,” Carter says, “to show how they would like to shoot it and where they would like to shoot it. They can have it set in Miami or in Norway. It’s a visual tool to help their clients better understand what the finished product will look like.”

Animated Storyboards

Storyboards also prove invaluable when planning computer animations. Anyone who’s worked with an animation package knows what a time-consuming process it can be. If you’re creating an animation for someone else, you want to make sure they understand what you will create for them; otherwise it could mean hours or even days of extra work.

Say you tell your client Mr. Miller that the logo you’re making for him will be a huge three-dimensional steel structure and that you’re drawing the dot on the “i” in “Miller” to burst into flames, he may just stare at you, glassy-eyed. But whip out a storyboard illustrating the process of the logo “growing” on the page while light plays off the metal of the letters, he’ll follow your every step. If the dot on the ‘i” then burns like the sun, Mr. Miller will leave your session with stars in his eyes.

Storyboards for computer animation aren’t necessarily drawn with classic artist tools such as pencils or brushes. Joseph Eagle, art director and animator at Traces, a computer animation firm in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania uses a unique approach to creating storyboards. His clients include the Philadelphia Phillies and the Unisys Corporation.

“We sit down and talk about what they want,” Eagle says. “We may start out by doing some real quick and dirty thumbnail sketches just to make sure we’re speaking the same language. Now, say a client comes in and she wants a 3-D Wavefront animation. Instead of spending time on the Wave-front, which is an expensive machine, what I’ll do is get on the digital effects system, and with the 2-D system, I can create pictures with a number of different tools.

“I get a product and then we set up the 35mm camera and just shoot straight off the monitor. Then we get the pictures developed, cut them out, paste them on a board and write little descriptions beneath them of the activity that’s going on in the pictures. The images look very high quality and in some cases, they look almost exactly how they are going to look in the finished piece, so they get a real good idea of what it’s going to look like. We started doing that because we found that storyboards drawn with markers and colored pencils don’t convey as much as video does.”


Make ‘Em Move

You can make storyboards do lots of things, but if the storyboard consists of pictures pasted to a board, there’s one thing it won’t do…move. Using a caption, you can tell the person looking at the board that the camera is panning or dollying, but you are once again expecting the viewer to be able to “see” things the same way you do. There are other methods.

“A series of pictures will do that,” says Eagle, “because it looks like some frames that have been pulled out of an animation. So there would be implied movement from picture to picture. If it’s one picture and I want to say ‘the logo flies down here’ I would put a couple of trails to imply movement, even though they wouldn’t show up in the actual piece.” To add movement to a storyboard, Napoleon Videographics takes the pictures and transfers them to videotape. Then they use a process called Animatics which uses “loose pieces” to convey movement. For example, say there was a cartoon man in one of the storyboard’s scenes and this man needed to wave at the camera. The cartoon man’s arm would be a loose piece-a graphic arm not attached to the picture of the man. Then when you shoot the man, you could move the loose arm back and forth as if he were waving.

Two other examples:

1) A character’s entire body, which you move toward the camera, and

2) Several different versions of a character’s head, with each head wearing a different expression.

“Advertising agencies use Animatics a lot with testing,” Carter says, referring to test marketing where groups view rough animated commercials to see how the audiences will react.

“They use Animatics in these focus groups because it’s a lot less expensive this way. If an agency has ten ideas, it’s a lot more cost effective to do it in Animatic form and to test it in the focus groups around the United States then to make ten finished commercials. Then after testing they look at the results, and the storyboard with the highest scores becomes a real spot.”

The Ever-Changing Storyboard

In the professional world, storyboards are just a part of the process-not an end in themselves. That’s why artists aren’t upset when clients ask for changes.

“They’re always making changes,” says Eagle. “Generally, it’s understood that the storyboard is not a device for nailing down every last detail. Rather, it’s a generalized look and we let them know that it’s just an approximation of what they’ll be getting on the 3-D system. If they come in and say, ‘The storyboard is fine but the fifth or sixth picture isn’t right’ it’s no problem, we’ll do it over. Everything’s still in the system. We call adjust them or even redo them from scratch.

“Storyboards are designed to be rough approximations of what will be produced. Some are real rough and some are pretty finished, but generally it’s wise to look at them as a guide to what you’re going to see. That’s the point of the storyboard. Whether you’re selling the job initially or you’ve got the job already, you’re just trying to establish what exactly is going to happen. It’s still only the initial rough step.”

If you think all this preparation seems unnecessary, think again.

“There are a lot of people who don’t think visually,” says Eagle. “Even between artists, words don’t really convey pictures. Two artists can sit there, and one artist can describe something and can write it down and get as verbal as you want with it, and the other will be listening and getting a visual image in his head, and it won’t be the same image. It will be real different.

The only way to find out is for one artist to make some kind of rough work, a quick sketch, and show the second artist. It’s not always sufficient to describe something in words. You really need to look at a picture. Then you can say, ‘this color needs to be that color or this needs to be bigger over here.’ Those are the kind of details no amount of words can convey.”

Software to the Rescue

If you have an irrational fear of drawing (a phobia traced to that unfortunate incident in your third grade art class), there’s still hope. There are a couple of software packages available for the Macintosh that can get you started on the road to storyboard happiness.

The first is the Storyboarder from American Intelliware. At just under $500, it boasts some professional power. Through a series of menus, you can customize your storyboard layout for a variety of formats.

You can add SMPTE time code (where each frame of video has its own unique ID number, such as 11:22:33:01), the duration times for each picture in your storyboard and even transitional effects between pictures like wipes or dissolves. If you work in other media, Storyboarder lets you set the aspect ratio to match those of motion pictures or HDTV.

You’ll find an abundance of subjects for your pictures in the program’s library. Or, if you recover from that art phobia, you can produce images using MacPaint. You can also import pictures by digitizing items from videotape or by scanning flat artwork.

Another program for storyboarding is the $430 Showscape from Lake Compuframes. Available for either Macintosh or IBM platforms, it integrates hand-drawn or scanned images into WordPerfect.

Any paint package can function as a basic storyboard generator. Simply make a standard template, then utilize your software’s paint tools to flesh out your brilliant vision.

Electronic Arts’ Deluxe Paint TV for the Amiga is a good storyboarding solution, and even offers 2D and simulated 3D animation.

It’s a Wrap

Using a storyboard will give you communication powers you cannot acquire any other way.

Your clients will understand your bizarre concepts immediately, showering you with money to carry them out. Your camera operator will pick up on your subtle imagery, helping you bring forth hidden meanings and subtexts in your compositions even you didn’t know were there.

And your actors will have a better than fifty-fifty chance of facing in the right direction during their scenes.

Obviously, storyboards can be very important to a video production. But what’s more important is that I never used the phrase, “a storyboard is worth a thousand words” in this article.

At least, not until now.

Videomaker contributing editor William Ronat owns a production company.

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